was born Alexander-Cesar-Leopold Bizet on 25th October 1838 in Paris, France,
but was baptised in 1840 with the name
Georges. His father was a composer, singer and teacher, his mother
played the piano, and his aunt was a vocal instructor. Georges received music lessons from
his father at four years of age.
attended the Paris Conservatoire where he studied counterpoint and fugue
with Pierre Zimmerman, whose assistant teacher was none other than
Georges’ idol, Charles Gounod, and Jacques Halevy. He also studied organ with Francois Benoist and piano with Antoine Francois Marmontel.
By the time he was fourteen, he was already considered a piano
wrote his “Symphony in
C” in 1855, when he was seventeen. Although today it is considered an
early masterpiece, Georges hid it away because he thought it was too
similar to Charles Gounod’s symphonies. It was only discovered through the
Conservatoire library archives in 1933 after Reynaldo Hahn had deposited it
there when he had been given it by Bizet's widow. “Symphony in C” was
premiered in 1935, eighty years after its composition, and sixty years
after Georges’ death.
from Charles Gounod, Georges’ other influences included Leo Delibes,
Jules Massenet, Jacques Offenbach and Camille Saint-Saens, although some
have likened his “Symphony in C” to Franz Schubert’s
work. This is ironic, as he
left many of his own compositions unfinished. In 1857, he left no fewer than five
cantatas incomplete, although Clovis et Clotilde was good enough to win him the Prix de
couple of his early operas, Le Docteur Miracle and Don Procopio, were also written
around this time, as was Te Deum,
a religious work he entered into the Prix Rodrigues,
a competition for winners of the Prix de Rome. It didn’t win, and
wasn’t even published until 1971. Another work, a musical travelogue
inspired by Florence, Naples,
Rome and Venice, came to be known as the
“Roma Suite” or “Roma Symphony”, and was
posthumously published in 1880.
studied in Rome until 1860, when his mother
became gravely ill, and returned to his hometown of Paris. She passed away in 1861. He took comfort in the arms of his
family’s chambermaid, Marie Reiter, and they had a son together, Jean
Bizet. Perhaps to avoid a
scandal, Jean was raised with the misconception that he was Georges’
younger brother, but Marie eventually told him the truth.
1862, Jacques Halevy died, leaving behind an
unfinished opera entitled Noe. Georges
completed his former teacher’s work, but again, it did not receive
its first production until well after his own death.
own operas were often ill-fated or greeted with less than enthusiastic
reviews. La guzla
de l’emir was aborted midway through
rehearsals at Opera-Comique. Georges was asked to write another
opera, Les pecheurs
de perles, known in English as The Pearl Fishers. It premiered in 1963, but was damned
with faint praise, or praised with faint damns.
order to facilitate his son’s compositional endeavors, Adolphe Bizet purchased some land near Paris and built a pair of bungalows,
providing a place for Georges to write in peace. He would soon have company,
however. On his way from Paris to Le Vesinet via train, he met a woman named Celeste Venard, whose eclectic pursuits included singing,
dancing, writing, equestrianism, theatre, and prostitution. She became the inspiration for the
title character of his most beloved opera, Carmen. Their
friendship was frowned upon by the Halevy family, as Georges was to marry
Jacques’ daughter, Genevieve.
the meantime, Georges continued working on operas, some incomplete or since
lost, but one of them, La jolie fille de Perth (The Fair Maid of Perth) was mounted
at Theatre-Lyrique on 26th December
1867, and remains in the operatic repertoire to this day.
and Georges wed on 3rd June 1869. It was not a happy
marriage—mental illness ran through the Halevy lineage—and a
year later, Georges enlisted in the National Guard
during the onset of the Franco-Prussian war. The war officially came to an end in
January 1871, but the bloodshed continued with a civil uprising, and the Bizets left Paris
for Le Vesinet.
Georges turned down teaching jobs because he wanted to devote himself to
composing, he served on several examination committees at the
Conservatoire, including those devoted to composition, counterpoint, fugue,
harp, and piano.
also eschewed a career as a concert pianist for the same reason, although
none other than Franz Liszt proclaimed him to be "one of
the three finest pianists in Europe". He was considered to be one of the
most brilliant sight-readers of his time, and he wrote approximately 150
piano pieces. One of these,
penned in 1871 for piano four hands, was famously orchestrated into a
petite suite. The final
movement, “Galop”, was used in an
early scene in the 1938 version of A
1872, the Bizets gave birth to Jacques, probably
named after Genevieve’s father.
They were poor, however, and Georges developed health issues and
struggled with depression. He was
an insecure artist, highly sensitive to criticism, even his own, as
evidenced by the number of works he started and never finished. Like many artists, he was more
appreciated after his death than he was during his lifetime.
22nd May 1872, one of his operas, an opera comique
in one act entitled Djamileh,
made its debut, and it so impressed Opera-Comique
co-director Camille du Locle, that he asked
Georges to collaborate with librettists Ludovic
Halevy (his cousin-in-law) and Henri Meilhac on Carmen.
had also written incidental music for the stage-play L’Arlesienne, and
although neither the play nor the music were appreciated, he arranged a
suite of the music that opened to good reviews and is still performed and
recorded on a regular basis. A
second suite was arranged by Ernest Guirad, and
they are often performed and recorded together. Two movements,
“Carillon” and “Farandole”, can frequently be found
on Christmas compilations.
1873, he wrote his Patrie
overture and work began in earnest on Carmen. Its beginnings were fraught with
controversy, as Camille du Locle’s
co-director, Adolph de Leuven, objected to the opera’s sordid subject
matter. A feud ensued, with
Camille and the opera’s stars siding with Georges, and Georges’
librettists siding with Adolph.
Georges was displeased with the lyrics of “Habanera”,
and rewrote them a total of thirteen times. The opera took over a year to
complete. It was a stressful
time and the Bizets actually separated at one
point for a couple of months.
on 3rd March 1975, Carmen
made its debut. Like many of
his other operas, it received a tepid response. It enjoyed a three-month run,
however, and was therefore the crowning achievement of his lifetime. This was small consolation to
Georges, who felt that as an artist, he was misunderstood.
the general public was less than overwhelmed, Georges’ contemporaries
had a differing opinion: His
genius was lauded by Johannes Brahms, who attended it more than twenty
times, Claude Debussy, Charles Gounod, Edvard
Grieg, Giacomo Puccini, Frederick Nietzsche,
Camille Saint-Saens, Richard Strauss, Peter Ilyich
Tchaikovsky, and Richard Wagner.
Tchaikovsky predicted that Carmen would one day be “the most
popular opera in the repertory”.
He was not far off the mark.
It is to this day one of the most often performed operas in the
many artists, however, Georges died before he had a chance to see his works
achieve popularity. On 3rd
June 1875, he shuffled off his mortal coil in a small town named Bougival on the outskirts of Paris.
cause of his death seems to be somewhat of a mystery. Some say heart failure. One theory suggests that he died of
a chill after engaging in a swimming contest. Homicide and suicide have even been
mentioned because of a mark that resembled a bullet wound on his neck. This was debunked when it was
interpreted as a perforated and swelled lymph node. Acute articular
rheumatism, quinsy, and systemic streptococcal infection have also been
mentioned. Whatever the case,
he passed away on the sixth anniversary of his marriage to Genevieve, and
precisely three months following the debut of Carmen.
was interred at Pere
in Paris, France, the burial ground of
Frederic Chopin and Gioacchino Rossini.
Carmen was cancelled after
Georges’ death, but re-emerged stronger than ever in a few years with
a world tour of sorts that saw it performed in Brussels,
Germany, London, New York
City, Russia, and Vienna. Years hence, it made a triumphant
return to Paris,
was greeted with glowing reviews, and a long, successful run.
The King’s Singers
Patapan and Farandole (Georges Bizet/Jeremy Jackman/Bernard
de la Monnoye)
49909 (CD: A Little Christmas Music)
Jackson – Countertenor and composer
Hume – Countertenor
Chilcott – Tenor and Arranger
Russell – Baritone
Carrington – Baritone
Connolly – Bass